Could the NASCAR Cup Series Race on a City Street Course?
If you look at the layout for the Chicago Street Course long enough, you might see two Martinsville Speedways overlapped and connected diagonally by right turns.
From that standpoint, the circuit appears to be compatible for NASCAR and would probably race similar in spirit to the iconic short track due to its long straights and hard braking zones.
It’s a theory that will be put to the test on June 2 when Cup Series drivers log-on to iRacing to virtually compete on the Streets of Chicago in a televised eSport event.
The project is co-sanctioned by both NASCAR and the Second City — which granted permission for iRacing to scan the streets overnight in October.
The circuit runs 2.2 miles and utilizes some of Chi-Town’s most famous streets, including Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue and Columbus Avenue. Its architecture includes Buckingham Fountain and Grant Park.
All the effort begs the question: Is this the first step towards an actual street course event on the Cup Series schedule?
“The impetus right now is solely that virtual event and bringing that to life on June 2,” said NASCAR Vice President Ben Kennedy, who spearheads NASCAR’s scheduling concepts. “That’s been our focus in the near-term.
“If there is an opportunity to explore different types of venues or new markets in the future, I think there are certainly a ton of options out there, whether it’s Chicago or other markets.”
Cup Series team owner Justin Marks (Trackhouse Racing) has long supported the concept and recently joined the promotional group for the IndyCar Grand Prix in Downtown Nashville.
“For us to grow this sport, I believe we have to do the best job we can to bring our races to the people,” he said.
Marks first reached this conclusion in 2012 while participating in the World Challenge race during the Grand Prix of Long Beach. He frequently tells the story of a conversation he had on pit road with teammate Peter Cunningham.
“I get out of the car and sit on the wall and there’s 100,000 people there,” Marks said. “I told my teammate, ‘You know why this event works so well? It’s because there’s 100,000 people here and about 95,000 of them aren’t race fans.’
“They’re here because it’s a cultural event. This is a city event and it’s something to do. People want to get out of their houses and do something, but they don’t always want to drive 150 miles, 200 miles, risk missing work and paying for hotels.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson is a byproduct of this concept at work. Gragson didn’t grow up a race fan but attended the only Champ Car World Series event in Downtown Las Vegas in 2007.
“The first race I ever went to was in Las Vegas and I think it was IndyCar,” Gragson recalled. “It went through downtown and I was like seven-years-old. I don’t remember it vividly but there are a couple of memories I can picture in my mind and just remembering how exciting it was.
“It would be really cool to have the chance to race in a city street setting and give another little kid that same experience.”
That’s the goal, right?
AJ Allmendinger currently competes against Gragson in the Xfinity Series but was a Champ Car regular from 2004-06 and saw first-hand the value of racing on city streets.
“I loved it because it obviously brought our racing to the people,” Allmendinger said. “So many people know what NASCAR is all about, but a lot of people don’t, right? That’s why we did it in Champ Car back in the day. …
“All the cities we went to were absolutely amazing. We’d get 150,000-200,000 people for a three-day weekend because they didn’t know what was going on. I’d say maybe 20 percent were the hardcore fans that knew what Champ Car was. Another 30 percent were casual fans but about 50 percent were walk-ups and just wanted to know what was happening.”
There is something to be said about NASCAR making greater overtures to its traditional fanbase.
Great strides are being made with the first dirt race in 51 years at Bristol Motor Speedway, a potential revival of Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and Auto Club Speedway of Southern California’s eventual reconfiguration into a half-mile short track.
But NASCAR simultaneously needs to reach new fans, apply new concepts and discover exciting new ways to get the show in front of eyeballs.
“I’m a big believer in this because if there is a market that is attractive to NASCAR, a street course is the best way to do that,” Marks said. “Our IndyCar race in Nashville, we’re going to have 100,000 people there and most of them live no more than 30 minutes away and can walk to the track.
“They can party all week, walk to Broadway or walk to their hotel rooms. I believe street course races are special because they have a tendency to attract a lot of people.”
The NASCAR Pinty’s Series in Canada contests two streets races a year alongside IndyCar at Toronto and as the GP3R headliner on the streets of Trois-Rivières.
Brad Keselowski has previously said that his ideal schedule contains 40 percent short tracks, 10-15 percent road courses, the four superspeedway races and then the remaining races take place on mile-and-a-half tracks.
That was, of course, before a dirt race was added this season, too.
“A street course, to me, is a road course, unless it’s a street oval, which I don’t know if they even have those,” Keselowski said. “But I still like those percentages.”
Maybe Keselowski is onto something and they could cut the Chicago Street Course in half and run it as a city short track.
Roger Penske, who owns Keselowski’s No. 2 car, is also the owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Making the concept even sweeter would be promoting an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader on a downtown street course.
“I think that’s interesting,” Penske said last month. “Remember down in Australia we ran a similar type car. It was a little bit smaller, but we ran every week down there and every race was on some sort of a street or a permanent road course and it was great. So, that could certainly be an opportunity and something we should take a look at.”
The concept continually comes back to delivering NASCAR races to a new audience.
There doesn’t need to be five of them on the schedule, but a city street course event alongside IMSA and IndyCar exposes the discipline to road racing fans in the same way that running future dirt races alongside the World of Outlaws could reintroduce NASCAR to dirt fans.
“We don’t need a lot of them,” Allmendinger said. “It’s like the Roval or the Bristol Dirt Race. To have a unique race or two on the schedule would be awesome. If they don’t over-saturate it, and find the right city and the right track, it could be huge.”
It also says a lot about the Cup Series that future schedules could include short tracks, intermediates, superspeedways, dirt, road courses and a street course.
Of course, if you ask most drivers, they’re still adamant that adding more short tracks should be the first order of business.
“I’m really excited about Fontana switching to a short track,” Keselowski said. “I think that will be really interesting. I’ll miss the big track. I’m not going to lie. That was a really cool track to run on, especially as it aged it became one of the best racetracks on the circuit, so I’m going to miss that, but not as much as I think I’m going to enjoy seeing it turn into a short track.
“That’s one of the tracks in a really important market that can draw a lot of fans. I would still like us to find a way to run on a short track in Canada. I think that market is really strong for us and under-utilized. I’m very excited about the Nashville Fairgrounds being picked up as well.”
Ryan Preece competed in a Tour Type Modified race last weekend at South Boston Speedway in Virginia – a venue operated by the family that owns Pocono Raceway.
When asked about street courses, Preece essentially countered with, why not more short tracks?
“I’m for whatever we need to do, I guess,” Preece said. “We’re competing, but I’m a huge fan of short track racing and I did go to South Boston this weekend. I thought that place, it would be cool to see if they could hold a Cup race because there are two pit roads there.
“But as far as street courses go, I like road racing. It’s not something that I come from. It’s not my background but I think it would be interesting for sure.”
They’re also expensive and logistically complicated. So, if NASCAR is to eventually pursue a city street course event, it’s going to need to be a perfect fit.
“You have to have the support of the city,” Marks said. “They’re logistically complicated to put on, they’re hard to do as a one and done deal. If we see it in NASCAR, it’s going to have to be in a city where there is a multi-year commitment, some tax or some budget subsidization, but I’m a big believer in it, 100 percent.”
A NASCAR race that takes place in front of over 150,000 people is just really hard to conceptually argue against.
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